The Beatles
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
(Capitol 46663)

Recently I've been getting very nostalgic for the early CD era – silly as it seems now, it was not so long ago that CD's were utterly novel and there were only like 300 titles available. Something amuses me about remembering that particular moment in time – perhaps it is just the thrill of hindsight, or the feeling of déjà vu as I look through the DVD selection at my local Best Buy. Perhaps it is just that I have run out of things to think about, and derive pleasure from recalling things that virtually no one cares about.

Certainly there is never any sort of retro-cheese factor attached to 1986-87, when CD's were first sarting to make themselves present. You never hear that aspect of the 80's mocked on morning show radio. Ah, well. I'll claim it as my territory: "Remember the 80s?!?! Ha ha, there were like only 250 CD's back in 1986! Ha, ha."

Yeah, I should take that one on the road. They'd boo me the hell out of "Amateur Night at the Apollo," but maybe Steve Harvey would give me another shot, and I could just sing "The Greatest Love of All" in a preening child-actor voice, and bring down the house!

Okay, there's two paragraphs you won't find in any other review of Sgt. Pepper. My train of thought, before it was derailed in that chemical-filled swamp, was that in the CD release of Sgt. Pepper in 1987 was the most eagerly awaited musical event in quite some time – hugely hyped in the press, it was one of the defining moments in the acceptance of CD technology by the mainstream.

It was definitely one of the biggest CD releases of the early CD era, timed perfectly to coincide with the album's 20th anniversary (and all the related "Summer of Love" nostalgia that came with it, including the rebirth of tie-dyes and the Grateful Dead, neither of which I am particularly "grateful" for). For me, a lifelong "confirmed Beatle fan" (I suppose that's the straight version of "confirmed bachelor"), getting that Sgt. Pepper in it's beautiful longbox (now there's an 80's thing that needs to be discovered by comedians) was truly exciting – aside from The White Album, it was probably my most eagerly awaited Beatles CD that year.

(I wonder if my robotic grandkids will ask me what it was like buying the Beatles CD's as they came out, much as I ask people from the 60s what it was like buying the albums when they were released – oh, who's kidding who, they won't be able to focus on anything but the last 10 seconds of Video Forehead Gaming Implant.)

So much has been written and said about the album (especially by Paul McCartney, who takes a little too much pride in the thing) that it seems beside the point to add to the pile, aside from saying that no album is more deserving of being reassessed and having its mythology stripped away, (well, maybe Never Mind the Bullocks).

Sgt. Pepper is not a bad album, and certainly not nearly as bad as I have often argued it is, mainly for effect, to piss off some of the more "critcially acclaimed" friends of mine – it's a good album, but not "The Greatest Rock Album of All Time," "The Best Album Ever Made," or "The Greatest Pop Masterpiece of the Rock Era." It's overblown and incoherent, and its oft-discussed "revolutionary" conceptual quality is pretty loose.

None of the songs besides "A Day in the Life" can really be called the band's best, and some of the songs are downright bad (yes, I am referring to "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds"). Still, it would be hard to argue that the album is not interesting, or that it is ridiculous. Enjoyment of Sgt. Pepper is unfortunately tempered by its extreme overrating by countless fans and musicians who regard it as such a momentous album. Whatever it meant back in the day, the strength of any album rests on its songs, and the songs on Sgt. Pepper come off more as vehicles for layers of sound effects than anything else.

George Martin rightly regards this as one of his masterpieces as a producer, and it's certainly an overachiever type excursion for a pop album, but ultimately, it's almost never the Beatles album I want to put on if I want to put on a Beatles album (a rare occurrence these days, I must admit).

The famous classic-rock opening ("Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" and "With a Little Help From My Friends") is great, one of the greatest one-two punches any album has ever come out swinging with (can't say the same for my mixed metaphors). "Lucy in the Sky" is dreary, though it features some great bass lines, and at least it's not Elton John's version. "Getting Better," which was clearly stolen from that car commercial, is a good Paul offering, notable for the weirdo lyrics "Me used to be angry young man/Me hiding me head in the sand."

"Fixing a Hole" is a fairly unlikable song, something of a cross between psychedelia and vaudevillia – in all honesty, I might even argue that George Burns makes more sense of it on the 1978 Sgt. Pepper film soundtrack than the Beatles do here. "She's Leaving Home" is always affecting, even though it's Paul at his most shamelessly manipulative – the orchestration is saccharine, sure, but quite amazing.

I was surprised to notice an upper harmony on the "bye bye" ending that I'd never noticed before – always cool to hear something new in a song you've probably heard 1,000 times or more.

"Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite" is another flat Lennon contribution, again featuring some awesome bass lines – though I should be careful to point out that I am not trying to trash Lennon and canonize McCartney here. It's just that the album finds Paul obviously inspired by his own concept, and Lennon less so. I'd like to say that Harrison's "Within You Without You" is my favorite track, but I'm afraid that I agree with virtually every other critic in saying that it's the album's most inarguable skip-over track. It's a great song, but quite out of place among the severely poppy stuff on the rest of the album.

What Harrison really should have done was make a whole album of Indian-style English pop music instead of participating in Sgt. Pepper – that would probably have stood up as one of the coolest albums of the 60s, when you really think about it. Would have presaged Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Michael Brook by a good 25 years.

"Within You" is followed incongruously, but charmingly, by "When I'm Sixty-Four," by far my favorite track on the album. In fact, what the Beatles should have done was have George make an Indian album, Paul make a dance-hall vaudeville album, and Lennon make a circus album, leaving Ringo to do vocals on the regular Beatles-type songs. Four Beatles solo albums in 1967 – would have presaged Kiss by a good 10 years.

Paul is always at his most effective with stuff like "When I'm Sixty-Four," which betray his shameless love for ubermelody. I could listen to a track of just the clarinet part in that song and be as satisfied as a cat breaking into a Ziploc bag filled with fresh catnip.

"Lovely Rita" is sonically more impressive than it is musically; "Good Morning, Good Morning" is the opposite – way too many sound effects on that one. The "Sgt. Pepper" reprise is awesome (some of Ringo's best drumming), and "A Day in the Life" is hard to beat.

Given that the album is so spotty, it's hard to see why it is consistently held up as the crowning achievement of the rock era when, clearly, Urban Dance Squad's Mental Floss For the Globe is.

Sgt. Pepper does have arguably the best album cover ever – truly one of the few genuine pieces of art that the field of rock album covers has produced (Mental Floss For the Globe being the other).

It all feeds into the mythos, I guess – and until everyone born before 1960 dies, we may just be stuck with the idea that Sgt. Pepper is the standard by which all albums are to be judged. Not in my world. It's a fine album, but I mean, I just gave a better rating to The Head on the Door by the Cure, and I'd have to say that's totally appropriate.

Kudos to the CD reissue, at least, for great packaging and including the "Sgt. Pepper Inner Groove" at the very end.

Review by Ala Arnuro